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The Medium & the Magician: August '99 American History Feature

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1999 
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The Medium & the Magician
The Medium & the Magician

Mina Crandon's followers believed she had genuine paranormal powers. HarryHoudini was equally certain she was a fraud.

By Daniel Stashower

It was a tense and rather peculiar gathering that took place on July 23, 1924, at 10 Lime Street, an elegant four-story brick house in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston. In a narrow room on the top floor, five distinguished men had come together to try to communicate with the dead. Their hostess–and guide to the spirit realm–was vivacious, 36-year-old Mina Crandon, who had in recent months become well-known to the public under a stage name of sorts: "Margery the Medium."

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Margery greeted her visitors in a flimsy dressing gown, bedroom slippers, and silk stockings. This attire, which left little to the imagination, was intended to rule out the possibility of concealment or trickery. It may have had other effects on her male visitors. Margery's girlish figure, fashionably bobbed light-brown hair, and sparkling blue eyes combined to make her, in the words of one bedazzled admirer, "too attractive for her own good."

During the previous year, Margery had conducted dozens of similar gatherings, or séances, for some hundreds of impressionable friends and acquaintances. Seated around a wooden table in the pitch-black room, Margery and her fellow "sitters" experienced a wide range of unearthly happenings. Mysterious bumps and raps rang out. Strange flashes of light pierced the darkness. Sometimes a wind-up Victrola would stop and start of its own accord, or disembodied voices would call from the shadows. Once a live pigeon appeared in the room, seemingly conjured from thin air. Even the table itself became an active participant in the proceedings, rearing up on two legs or rising toward the ceiling. At one especially lively sitting, it pursued a visitor from the room and knocked him off his feet.

Each of these remarkable events was thought to offer proof of the validity of spiritualism, the belief that it is possible for the dead to communicate with the living through an earthly conduit known as a medium. "I consider the psychic question to be infinitely the most important thing in the world," declared Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world's most visible proponent of spiritualism. "All modern inventions and discoveries will sink into insignificance beside those psychic facts which will force themselves within a few years upon the universal human mind."

Conan Doyle was not alone in this view. Spiritualism had been on the wane for decades, but in the wake of World War I, as death touched tens of thousands of households on both sides of the Atlantic, the movement underwent a rebirth. Friends and relatives of fallen soldiers flocked to séances, desperate to receive some word or sign of "life beyond the veil." Many of the mediums who set up shop during this period were obvious frauds, callously playing upon the hopes of the bereaved. Others, like Mina Crandon, were not so easily dismissed. Her astonishing versatility and personal charm soon propelled her to international fame, and sparked an enduring controversy.

To a large extent, that controversy began at Margery's July 23 séance. Up to this point, the medium had displayed her talents almost exclusively to sympathetic audiences, who readily saw evidence of their departed loved ones in the strange manifestations at Lime Street. On that particular night, however, the sitters were of a more critical frame of mind, none more so than the man seated to Margery's left–Harry Houdini.

Houdini, who had achieved world fame through his skills as a magician and his abilities as an escape artist, had been creating a new role for himself as the "scourge of spirit mediums." "I am willing to be convinced," he wrote earlier that year; "my mind is open, but the proof must be such as to leave no vestige of doubt that what is claimed to be done is accomplished only through or by supernatural power."

Houdini's public crusade had its roots in a private grief. The death of his beloved mother in 1913 had been "a shock from which I do not think recovery is possible." In the intervening years he had attended hundreds of séances, but his longing to contact his mother soon turned to rage at the obvious deceptions he encountered. It galled him to see the public bilked by unscrupulous mediums whose talents, he thought, were no more supernatural than those of "honest" magicians. He soon vowed to devote the remainder of his life to exposing fraudulent mediums. Even in this, the magician could not entirely restrain his flair for the dramatic. Often he attended séances wearing a false beard and mustache or some other camouflage, the better to observe without being detected. When he had gathered enough evidence to make an exposure, he would leap up, tear off his disguise, and shout, "I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!"

Houdini needed no disguise when he called upon Margery; the medium relished the chance to convert such a notorious skeptic. Some observers saw this encounter as an acid test–not just of Margery's mediumship, but of spiritualism itself. But if Houdini truly maintained an open mind on the subject, as he often claimed, there was little evidence of it that night as the small séance room came alive with otherworldly activity. A spirit bell rang. A voice called to him in the darkness. A megaphone crashed to the floor at his feet. If these manifestations impressed him, he gave little sign. When the lights came back on, Houdini thanked his hostess and took his leave. On the drive back to his hotel, the magician gave voice to his true feelings. "I've got her," he declared. "All fraud."

Mina Crandon seemed an unlikely medium. Where the celebrated Helena Blavatsky, founder of the movement known as Theosophy, had been solid and serious, Mina Crandon resembled nothing so much as a light-hearted flapper. Even Houdini conceded that she was an exceedingly attractive woman, and one psychic researcher cautioned his colleagues to "avoid falling in love with the medium." The daughter of a Canadian farmer, Mina had moved to Boston as a teenager to play piano, cornet, and cello in various local dance bands and orchestras. After working as a secretary, an actress, and an ambulance driver, Mina divorced her first husband and married Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a former instructor of surgery at the Harvard Medical School, in 1918. She was barely 30. Dr. Crandon was at least a dozen years older.

It was Dr. Crandon who introduced his wife to the paranormal. In the spring of 1923 he had become intrigued by an account of "table tipping," a rudimentary form of mediumship not unlike a Ouija board. Crandon ordered a table constructed to the exact dimensions specified in the book he had been reading. Toward the end of May, Crandon and his wife invited four of their friends to join them in an attempt to recreate the table-tipping experiment. Following Crandon's terse instructions, the sitters took their places at the table, joined hands, and waited for some sign of a spirit presence.

Nothing happened. Mina began to feel silly. "They were all so solemn about it that I couldn't help laughing," she recalled. "They reproved me severely, and my husband informed me gravely that 'This is a serious matter.'"

Then, abruptly, the table began to move–only slightly at first, but then more violently, tilting up on two legs before crashing loudly to the floor. Crandon demanded to know which of his guests possessed the mediumistic talent necessary to cause this manifestation. One by one, the physician instructed his friends to remove their hands from the séance table. The table stopped its rocking only when the last of the sitters lifted her hands. Dr. Crandon had his answer. The medium was his own wife.

At first, the very idea of being a medium seemed a great lark to Mina. All through the summer of 1923 the Crandons conducted one séance after another. In each case, Mina appeared to exhibit some strange new power. Indeed, it seemed that Dr. Crandon had only to read of some new psychic manifestation before Mina could duplicate it.

Within a month of the first séance, Dr. Crandon announced a plan to place his wife under hypnosis, in the hope of making contact with a "psychic control" who would serve as her guide to the spirit world. At first Mina resisted this suggestion, claiming that she didn't want to miss any of the "fun" while under hypnosis. Eventually, however, she gave in to her husband's wishes, and before long an unfamiliar male voice made itself known to the Crandon circle. "I said I could put this through," it announced.

The voice, it was thought, belonged to Walter Stinson, Mina's older brother, who had been crushed to death in a railroad accident a dozen years earlier. From this point forward, Walter's spirit was a regular presence in the séance room at Lime Street.

Walter proved to have a forceful personality. He had a quick and ready wit and was much given to rough language. Many visitors to the Crandons' séance room became convinced of the truth of what they heard simply because they could not imagine that such coarse and irreverent language would issue from the lips of the demure doctor's wife. "Hell is now completely up to date," Walter once quipped to a roomful of clergymen. "We burn oil!"

Several observers noted that Walter's voice did not appear to come from Mina at all. The sound seemed to originate in a different part of the room, and would continue unabated even while Mina snored her way through a hypnotic trance, or held her mouth full of water. The effect proved so remarkable that one skeptic, searching for some plausible explanation, wondered aloud if perhaps the lady could speak through her ears.

Believing his wife to be a "remarkable psychic instrument," Dr. Crandon took her abroad to build up a consensus of favorable opinion from European experts. One of these was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who declared her to be "a very powerful medium" and that the validity of her gifts was "beyond all question."

J. Malcolm Bird, an associate editor of Scientific American magazine, shared Conan Doyle's opinion and wrote a series of articles extolling Mrs. Crandon's gifts. It was Bird who gave her the name "Margery," in an effort to protect the Crandons' privacy. Under this name, her renown steadily grew.

By bringing Mrs. Crandon to the attention of Scientific American, Conan Doyle had inadvertently placed her at the center of a growing controversy. In December 1922 the magazine had launched an investigation into the paranormal, with a cash prize of "$2,500 to the first person who produces a psychic photograph under its test conditions" and "$2,500 to the first person who produces a visible psychic manifestation of other character . . . to the full satisfaction of these judges." A special investigating committee would examine all mediums who applied for the prize, with Bird acting as its secretary. Conan Doyle regretted that Bird, a Margery supporter, would have no investigative role, as the author harbored reservations about the rest of the committee, which included several skeptics. When Houdini was asked to lend his talents, Conan Doyle expressed outrage at the "capital error" of placing an enemy of spiritualism on such a body. "The Commission is, in my opinion, a farce," he wrote.

The Crandons, for their part, seemed to welcome the opportunity to test Margery's mettle against the notorious Houdini. Though Scientific American's money meant little to the wealthy couple, the opportunity to win the approval of such a prestigious body–at Houdini's expense–proved too great a temptation to resist. Dr. Crandon wrote to Conan Doyle of his willingness to "crucify" any investigators who doubted his wife. Even the discarnate voice of Walter, speaking from the spirit plane, appeared to relish the challenge.

As it happened, Houdini was not notified when the Scientific American committee began its investigations, and he didn't learn until three months later that the proceedings were under way at all. By this time, rumor had it that the committee was on the point of declaring Margery genuine and awarding her the prize. Bird, in particular, seemed eager to give the magazine's endorsement and allowed word of the favorable findings to find its way to the press. "Boston Medium Baffles Experts," announced one headline. "Houdini the Magician Stumped," declared another.

Houdini, who had not even been present at the investigation, much less stumped, was not pleased. He told Scientific American that he would forfeit $1,000 of his own money if he failed to expose Margery as a fraud. Traveling to Boston, he reviewed the findings of his peers. To his way of thinking, the investigation had been mishandled from the start. Most of the committee members had availed themselves of the Crandons' generous hospitality during the proceedings–staying in their home, eating their food, and enjoying their company. This, Houdini believed, had badly compromised their objectivity. Later it was revealed that accepting room and board had been the least of the transgressions. One investigator had actually borrowed money from Dr. Crandon, while another hoped to win his backing for a research foundation. Worse yet, the distinguished panel was not unaware of Mrs. Crandon's attractions. At least one committee member drew comfort in his old age from the recollection of amorous encounters with the celebrated medium.

After the July 23 séance, Houdini left the Crandon home much impressed by the famous Margery–though not by any supernatural powers, he hastened to assure his colleagues. At his hotel later that evening, the magician explained how and why his conclusions differed from theirs. One feat that had baffled the other sitters was the ringing of a "spirit bell box," a small wooden clapper-box that sounded an electric bell when pressed from the top. Although Margery's hands were held by the sitters on either side of her and her feet were in contact with theirs, the bell box rang repeatedly throughout the séance–a phenomenon she attributed to Walter.

Usually the bell box sat on the floor between Margery's legs, but Houdini had insisted that it be placed on the floor at his own feet. Despite this precaution, the bell rang as merrily as ever. Houdini had a ready answer: "I had rolled my right trouser leg up above my knee," he later wrote. "All that day I had worn a silk rubber bandage around that leg just below the knee. By night the part of the leg below the bandage had become swollen and painfully tender, thus giving me a much keener sense of feeling and making it easier to notice the slightest sliding of Mrs. Crandon's ankle or flexing of her muscles….I could distinctly feel her ankle slowly and spasmodically sliding as it pressed against mine while she gained space to raise her foot off the floor and touch the top of the box." In short, Margery's agile foot, not a spirit visitor, had been responsible for the ringing bell.

Another of the evening's mysteries had involved a megaphone that–according to the disembodied voice of Walter–had been levitated in the darkness above the sitters' heads. "Have Houdini tell me where to throw it," the voice had commanded.

"Toward me," answered Houdini, whereupon the megaphone instantly crashed to the ground in front of him. Here, too, Houdini had an explanation. Earlier in the proceedings, he said, when one of Margery's hands momentarily came free, she had snatched up the megaphone and placed it on her head, like a dunce cap. In the total darkness of the séance room, no one would have seen her do this. Later, with both of her hands again under control, the medium had made the megaphone sail through the air simply by snapping her head forward. "This," Houdini acknowledged, "is the 'slickest' ruse I have ever seen…."

To assure proper control at future séances, Houdini designed a special "fraud-preventer" cabinet, a slant-topped crate with openings for the medium's head and arms. Once inside, Margery's movements–and the opportunities for deception–would be severely limited. Reluctantly, Margery agreed to conduct a séance from within the cabinet, but not before Dr. Crandon and Houdini exchanged such harsh words that Walter himself felt compelled to call for a truce.

The first séance with the cabinet was not a success. Acting on a tip from Walter, Dr. Crandon discovered a small pencil eraser wedged into the bell box to prevent it from ringing. Outraged, the physician accused Houdini of attempting to sabotage the proceedings–a charge the magician repeatedly denied.

Another attempt proved even more dismal. A collapsible carpenter's ruler–which might have been used to manipulate the bell box and other apparatus from within the cabinet–was discovered at Margery's feet. Margery's defenders saw this as a craven attempt by Houdini to discredit her. "Houdini, you God damned bastard, get the hell out of here and never come back!" exclaimed the voice of Walter at the séance. In Houdini's view, the folding ruler had been planted to impugn his testimony, and he resented that anyone would take Walter's word over his.

By the time Scientific American finally declined to grant the prize to Margery, in large part due to Houdini's exposures, the combustible magician had quarreled, sometimes violently, with every member of the committee. Bird, whom Houdini suspected of active collusion with the Crandons, had resigned as secretary. In his final verdict of the Margery phenomenon, Houdini wrote, "My decision is, that everything which took place at the seances which I attended was a deliberate and conscious fraud…."

From the great beyond, Walter weighed in with a prediction: Houdini, he said, would be dead within a year. Houdini managed to thwart the prophecy, but only just. He died on October 31, 1926, of complications following a blow to the stomach. In an interview with the press, Margery offered a few words of conciliation, praising Houdini's virile personality and great determination.

Despite Houdini's exposures, Margery emerged from the debacle essentially unscathed. In the séance room, she went on to better things. By the end of 1924 she had begun to produce "teleplasmic" manifestations similar to those of Eusapia Palladino, a famed Italian medium. Sitters were now treated to the sight of ectoplasm–said to be the substance of spirit emanations–issuing from Margery's nose, mouth, ears, and other body openings. The emanations, once extruded from the medium's body, sometimes formed themselves into the shape of crude hands. These ectoplasmic limbs, the medium claimed, were responsible for the ringing of the bell box and other phenomena.

Eric J. Dingwall, an officer of Britain's Society for Psychical Research, was one of the first to investigate Margery's latest wonder. Having evidently won the confidence of Walter, Dingwall was permitted to view the teleplasmic emanations by the light of a red lamp, which Dr. Crandon flashed on and off to reveal brief glimpses of the phenomenon. Too much light, Crandon explained, would have an inhibiting effect on the ectoplasm. "The materialized hands are connected by an umbilical cord to the medium," Dingwall wrote to a friend, "they seize upon objects and displace them." Later, when Dingwall was permitted to clasp one of the teleplasmic hands, he described it as feeling like "a piece of cold raw beef or possibly a piece of soft wet rubber."

Mid-way through his investigations, however, Dingwall began to entertain doubts. Dr. Crandon's lamp never allowed him to see the ectoplasm actually extrude from Margery's body; he had only seen it after the fact. Odder still, photographs revealed that many of the emanations appeared to be hanging from slender, almost invisible threads. Others who examined the photographs noted that the ectoplasm looked suspiciously like animal lung tissue, a substance Dr. Crandon might have obtained through his work at Boston hospitals. Dingwall's final report on the matter was inconclusive.

Margery remained characteristically unconcerned. In an earlier age, she noted, she would have been executed as a witch. Now she found herself the subject of learned investigations. "That represents some progress, doesn't it?" she asked.

Sitters continued to file into the séance room at Lime Street. One investigation after another raised the possibility of fraud, but none seemed able to make the allegations stick. Even J.B. Rhine, later to become one of the driving forces of paranormal research, was intrigued by Margery, but he came away unimpressed by what he had seen. As ever, Conan Doyle defended the medium. When Rhine published an unflattering account of his experience with Margery, Conan Doyle bought space in several Boston newspapers to run a reply. The black-bordered message read simply: "J. B. Rhine is an ass."

By 1928, Margery had added yet another effect to her repertoire, one that promised to excite even more speculation. In recent séances, Walter had hinted that it might be possible for him to leave behind a fingerprint. On a visit to her dentist, Dr. Frederick Caldwell, Margery asked if the hot wax used to take dental impressions might also be used to obtain Walter's fingerprint. Caldwell demonstrated how well the wax preserved his thumbprint and gave Margery his sample print and all the necessary materials to make new ones.

That very night, Walter left a thumbprint in the wax. When a so-called fingerprint expert used by the Crandons said the print matched one taken from an old razor that once belonged to Walter Stinson, Margery appeared to have confounded the skeptics. Yet when psychic researcher E.E. Dudley set out to compare Walter's wax print with those of people in the Crandon circle, he made a surprising discovery: Walter's thumbprint was identical in every way to that of Margery's dentist, Dr. Caldwell. Someone had apparently used the sample thumbprint Dr. Caldwell had made for Margery to create a metal die-stamp suitable for making impressions in wax. The ax had finally fallen. Even many devoted adherents backed away from their earlier endorsements. Malcolm Bird, once her staunchest defender, admitted that at times he had been guilty of elaborations and half-truths. The scientific community let it be known that Margery's séances no longer held any interest.

The medium's decline was rapid and tragic. With the death of Dr. Crandon in 1939, Mina grew melancholy and depressed and turned to alcohol for consolation. She began to look older than her years; one visitor described her as "an overdressed, dumpy little woman." She seemed to have difficulty controlling her emotions. During one séance the medium grew so distraught that she climbed to the roof of the Lime Street house and threatened to throw herself off.

Mina Crandon died at the age of 54 in 1941. In the end she had been worn down not so much by the assaults of adversaries like Houdini, but by the entreaties of her supporters, who continually demanded new and better miracles from her. As Eileen Garrett, a fellow medium, observed, "Margery's best friends were her worst enemies."


Daniel Stashower is the author of Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle (Holt, 1999). He lives in Washington, D.C.

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